Aussie Life

Aussie Life / Language

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

Simon Collins

Things must be getting back to normal again in Australia if we’re arguing about the wording of the national anthem. But just because this isn’t a life, death or livelihood issue doesn’t mean it won’t divide many of us along the same political fault lines as bush fires, elections and lockdowns. Having said that, I find myself siding with the progressives in this matter and would happily swap ‘young’ for ‘one’ for the same reason I would support the constitutional disavowal of terra nullius: it’s the correction of an embarrassing factual error. But if we’re going to audit one word, shouldn’t we audit all of them? For example, in light of what life has been like for many Victorians for much of this year – and what is now also happening in South Australia – can we really still describe ourselves as ‘free’? And no doubt there are many Australians of African, Asian and Middle Eastern extraction – or at least many white Australians who claim to represent the interests of such communities – who will soon be personally – or at least vicariously – offended by the qualification of Australia as ‘fair’.

Warren Mundine has joined the ‘one’ camp, but wants us to go one step further and sing at least part of the anthem in an aboriginal language. Part of his rationale for this is the precedent set by South Africa, whose post-apartheid anthem has verses in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and Sesotho. Warren says he finds listening to this linguistic rainbow a moving part of pre-Test rugby protocols, from which we can infer that he has a lot more patience than the average rugby fan, to whom having to sit through two anthems before every match has become – like watching the haka – the bane of international competition. One of the best things about my Foxtel coverage is that, by recording each match, I can fast-forward through the anthems the same way I can fast forward through the adverts and fatuous half-time panel discussions. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.

The South African template couldn’t be applied here for one very practical reason; where they have three different indigenous languages, we have more than 300, around 150 of which are still, to a greater or lesser extent, in use. Warren’s solution to this is that the aboriginal component should vary according to where the anthem is sung, so that Sydney crowds would learn a few lines in Eora, Brisbane crowds would sing them in Turrbal or Yuggera, and so on. But while this would not be too onerous a duty for the fixed populations of each city or state, it would be fiercely resisted by the players who make up our national squad, many of whom struggle to remember the English words and live in fear of being outed as unpatriotic by the intimate singing close-ups the networks feel obliged to provide.

But Australian sportsmen and women have it easy compared to their Argentinian counterparts, the lyrics and tune of the Argentine anthem being, on the evidence of the pre-match close-ups at last Saturday’s Puma v. Wallaby clash, things which each player is expected to make up on the spot, and which need have no commonality with what the player next to him is singing. Perhaps it was the shame of this – rather than national pride – which brought tears to the Puma’s eyes and made them play so well and force a draw. Having already beaten the All Blacks the previous week, for the first time in their history, they will certainly be given a hero’s welcome when they get home.

But let’s hope their rugby triumph does not give them, as a nation, a sufficiently false sense of their own strength to have another go at invading the Falklands. I thought about this while binge-watching the first half of the latest series of The Crown, one episode of which featured grainy old news footage of the conflict. I went out with an attractive, intelligent Argentinian woman last year and we managed to have two very enjoyable dinners before the subject of the Falklands came up. She then told me that, contrary to what the British media said at the time about the invasion being a cynical Galtieri initiative foisted on an unwilling Argentine population, many moderate, educated Argentinians fervently believed, and still believe, that the UK’s presence in the South Atlantic was, and still is, unlawful. Unfortunately, she included herself in this. So I never saw her again.

Kel Richards

Ken Wyatt is the current Minister for Indigenous Affairs. But previous holders of his office were called Ministers for Aboriginal Affairs. In fact, throughout much of Australian life there has been a switch from ‘Aboriginal’ to ‘Indigenous’. The two words are not synonyms, but they do cover an over-lapping semantic territory. However, I find the switch puzzling, because ‘Aboriginal’ is the stronger of the two words while ‘Indigenous’ is the less precise. Anyone who is born in a land, who is a native of a land (the land of their ‘nativity’ or birth) is ‘indigenous.’ That makes me an indigenous Australian even though my parents were of European descent because I was born here. If I am not indigenous to Australia, where am I indigenous to? On the other hand ‘aboriginal’ means ‘descent from the original inhabitants’ (from the Latin ab meaning ‘from’ and origo meaning ‘origin.’) The word ‘Aboriginal’ identifies someone who can trace at least part of their family tree back to a time before European settlement; ‘Indigenous’ does not. Why this change from the stronger word to the weaker? This puzzling move might end up being a backward step.

Brendan O’Neill says that ‘new normal’ is ‘the most terrifying phrase of our time.’ I take it he is concerned that this expression is being used to tell us that an Orwellian control of our life and liberty by government is the standard to which we must become accustomed. And his concern may be quite sound. However, the expression ‘new normal’ is, itself, a piece of nonsense. For a start ‘new normal’ first appeared in our language back in 1922. And it gets a run whenever the going gets tough. For instance, we heard a lot about ‘this is the new normal’ during the outbreak of Sars in 2003 and again during the GFC. In other words, it gets trotted out in moments of panic. But the cause of the panic disappears (as it has done repeatedly since the emergence of ‘new normals’ from 1922 onwards) and the expression is forgotten – until next time. ‘New normal’ is also an oxymoron. Nowadays, ‘normal’ means ‘regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional’ whereas ‘new’ means the opposite. Hence, if it’s normal it’s not new, and if it’s new it’s not normal. It’s a nonsense phrase that should be left to the muddled-minded, and eschewed by the clear-thinking.

When ABC reporter Laura Tingle posted on Twitter that Scott Morrison was ‘smug’ and guilty of ‘ideological bastardry’ her producer said ‘I think that Laura made a mistake.’ ‘Mistake’ is often employed as an excuse, but is it the right word? At the core of the meaning of ‘mistake’ is the notion of doing something ‘in error’ – to do what one did not intend to do. If sitting at your keyboard you intend to hit the ‘delete’ button but your finger slips and you hit the ‘send’ button instead that might count as a mistake. But to carefully compose a tweet that advertises political bias and then hit ‘send’ is not a mistake – whatever it is, it’s not an unintentional error. It might show a failure to understand the ABC Charter, but it cannot be excused as a ‘mistake.’

Contact Kel at

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